The Toothpick Cart: A Business Tale

The toothpick cart, as strange as it may sound, was my favorite part of the meal at Tolliver’s. We had been going there since I was a child, and Mr. Tolliver would always roll out a special cart, with only toothpicks on it.  It wasn’t that I was obsessed with my teeth, it was the fact that Mr Tolliver would laugh and tell jokes, and talk to us all.

He would do that with most of the families in the restaurant. We went to Tolliver’s for I guess twenty years, until he retired and sold the business. He didn’t intentionally sell it to a company other than a restaurant, it just worked out that way. Ironically he sold it to a startup that I went to work for, fresh out of college. 

We survived the bubble, but the genius CEO retired, and eventually at thirty, I found myself running the place. Things started getting rocky, and I was scared. Business wasn’t great, and I had to do something, but had no idea what to do.

Finally one Thursday, around two in the afternoon, I had to get out of there. I had skipped lunch, and was starving. I found myself at a little coffee shop slash deli called Ina’s, and ordered a Rueben.  I intended to eat, and sulk in silence, until I saw a familiar face.

“Mylon, good to see you. It’s been awhile. Here, let’s share a table.” I don’t know how he knew, I guess he read my face, but he could tell I needed something. After all this was the man who used to do toothpick puppet shows at the table. He saw many a pouting face over something unimportant I’m sure.

I was stunned that he remembered my name. “I remember all my regular customers. How is the family? What was that young lady’s name you introduced me to our last night at the restaurant?”

“Emma, we married about year after that. We had a little boy, Tommy, he’s five now.” He spent the next few minutes warming me up to talking about my problem.  Before I knew it, I was pouring out all my questions to him.

I asked him how he used to juggle things. Then he started laughing, and telling me stories about misadventures at the restaurant. They relaxed me, and made me laugh.

Ed Tolliver wasn’t obsessed with food, anymore than I was with teeth, but he talked about an environment I knew him in. I found out later, he was running a small online business on the side, to stay busy. He understand more than I knew, plus he knew what I needed.

“It does sound like your juggling appetizers and entrees, but your biggest problem seems to be time. I mean, you’re doing great customer service. I read about the award you got online. You just need to keep the customers interested long enough to buy dessert. You need a toothpick cart.”

My jaw dropped. I had never thought there was a purpose to the toothpick cart, other than conversation. He smiled, and explained. “It became my favorite time at the restaurant, talking with friends who had become family. That’s what it turned into, but it started out as a means of buying time.”

He explained that one night, early on, the pastry chef got mad and walked out.  He had been mad over not getting a raise, so he not only left, he sabotaged the batter to the cheesecakes.  When they came out of the oven, they were black. He had dropped a large amount of black food coloring in pans.

Mr. Tolliveer couldn’t serve them. His chef said he could take some raspberry preserves and make dessert pancakes, but he needed time. Sheer panic gave birth to the toothpick cart. He dumped boxes of toothpicks into silver cups, loaded them on trays, and wheeled it into the dining room.

“It not only bought time for those who had earlier said they wanted dessert, it kept others talking longer. To my surprise, people who had already asked for their checks, added dessert. I wasn’t selling dessert, I was doing everything I could not to talk about it, but the time and the conversation sparked something.”

“You’re problem is your customers order, and are on to view something else. You need some unobtrusive way to add enough value, without pressure to cause them to hang around. Don’t try to sell, try to serve.”

“In serving, you’ll make their day better, and enough people will appreciate it to buy something else. At the same time you’ll create something that will help everybody, and probably find it’s your favorite part of the business.”

“I don’t miss running a restaurant, but I do miss the conversations. That little cart, and the silver cups, is the only memento I kept. I’d like to think some of my restaurant families remember it fondly.”

I agreed, and told him how that was my favorite part of Tolliver’s. We talked a little longer as we finished our lunch. Then he had to go, and so did I. I had walked in, desperate, and scared, but I walked out confident, and with a plan.

All I needed was my own version of the toothpick cart. That part was a little harder, but eventually I found a way of adding value to our customers experience. Everyone didn’t buy more, but enough did to get us over the hump. 

Along the way, we got comments on how enjoyable the new experience was. Soon it led to being able to provide opportunities that helped our customers in meaningful ways. After awhile it included working with non profit organizations. What had began as a way of saving the business became a means impacting our community.

All because of an angry chef, black food coloring, ruined cheesecakes, and a toothpick cart. I reached out to Mr Tolliver, and we met up again. This time though, I brought him something, a small thank you. A miniature sterling silver paperweight of Mr Tolliver, smiling behind his toothpick cart.

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